You can tell by their hands. Blistered and calloused, rowers wear their hours of training on their palms.
Their days begin at 5 a.m. They wake up, head to the Spokane River and by 6 a.m. are working to find more speed than the morning before.
Last spring, the two teams landed in different spots. The women’s team celebrated another undefeated year in conference and placed 20th at the NCAA National Championships. Meanwhile, the men’s team had a disappointing and abrupt end to its season.
The varsity eight was disqualified for tardiness from its race at Western Sprints — the qualifying regional championship at Lake Natoma, California, for a seat at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championships.
Despite the two teams looking to accomplish different goals by the end of its seasons, each has its eyes set on a new place down the road: their own boathouse on Silver Lake, 30 minutes from campus.
After years of gathering donors and funds, along with delayed construction, GU’s rowing programs are set to dedicate the new boathouse on Oct. 12, over alumni weekend.
“Just the ability to have a facility where there’s running water, and they have their own space, they have a locker room, they’ll feel like they’re actually at home,” said Marisa Wortman, women’s rowing head coach. “Just having the appreciation of old rusty racks and now everything is so new and smooth and sleek. If we’re not getting faster just being around that, I’m going to be disappointed.”
And that’s always the mission: to be faster.
Following a fifth straight undefeated year in conference and placing 20th at the NCAA Championships, Wortman is less focused on its ranking and more focused on the process.
This season, Wortman said she wants her rowers to focus on being a “Z.A.G.” That means having a Zest for excellence, getting A little bit better every day and having the Growth for gaining speed. All of which she hopes will make the athletes faster than the year before.
“Being so goal focused on a specific seating at NCAAs didn’t really help us appreciate all of the success throughout the year and it kind of just made it about one race,” Wortman said.
Wortman served as an assistant coach for three years before being named the head coach last year.
“Last year was definitely like drinking from a firehose,” Wortman laughed. “There was a lot of learning. It was really awesome to get to do all of that learning with a team that I was already familiar with.”
In 2018, the women’s team had taken 18th at the NCAA Championships, so finishing two spots behind its previous best in May had the rowers just shy of its goal of being in the top 15.
But in the grand scheme of things, Wortman said ranking 20th out of 180 Division I rowing teams is still a major achievement that should be celebrated.
“They work really hard because they are really supported and at the same time, they want to be better than they were last year,” she said.
Tasked with carrying out the daily practices that will lead the team toward improvement are the coxswains. Coxswains sit in the stern, the front of the boat, facing the rowers and are responsible for steering the boat.
Coxswains also serve as extensions of the coaching staff. They help to keep the rowers in rhythm with one another and motivate them to move stronger and move faster.
Alexa Jadallah, senior and three-time West Coast Conference Coxswain of the Year, was recruited to help GU do just that.
Through her headset and microphone, amplified through the boat’s speakers, Jadallah guides the rowers through practices and races.
“I think making it really personable and just having that constant reminder of what we’re working toward,” Jadallah said. “Each day, just trying to get better and focusing on those little things.”
Ben Foos, senior coxswain of the men’s team, views himself as an interpreter for men’s rowing head coach Dan Gehn.
“I’m not setting my own goals on the team. I’m usually translating what the coach says,” Foos said. “So the coach says one thing, but the team might not understand it because everyone talks in a different language than what a 50 [-year-old] — I don’t know how old he is — father talks like. So, translate that into college-boy motivation and direction and it works.”
This year, the men’s team is working toward moving itself back into the limelight after its early exit at Western Sprints.
Although disappointed and in disagreement with the disqualification, Gehn said the team has learned from its mistakes.
“It was one of those things that I think it’s left the guys pretty hungry because they had done well,” Gehn said.
And Gehn has seen that determination through solo work over the summer. Since the team can’t hold practices during the summers, the fitness of the athletes is completely reliant on the individual.
Upon returning for the school year, the rowers were tested on the ergometer to see where the months away from formal training left them and the results look promising.
Out of the 25 rowers, Gehn said four set personal records and upward of nine rowers were faster than the previous year.
“So I think you’re seeing the heartbeat,” Gehn said. “The heartbeat is, ‘We need to be in shape and ready to go,’ and so they’re a pretty focused group of guys.”
The men’s program hasn’t been to the national championships for more than four years and would like to see that change.
“The guys are nose to the grindstone and they can’t wait to get to the springtime,” Gehn said. “But they know they’ve got to do the work in the fall. We want our shot back at the championship.”